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In the novel The Wave by Morton Rhue (the pen name for Todd Strasser), a history teacher conducts an experiment to understand Nazi Germany’s influence on its people. However, students turn against each other and terrorize those who are not part of The Wave. Robert Billings is a vital character who develops significantly throughout the novel, and in a manner that calls attention to the disturbing nature of Rhue’s message. In a dramatic shift, he transitions from class loser to a blind follower of The Wave as the school loses all independence and uniqueness.
Robert Billings is no doubt portrayed as the class loser in the novel and Rhue describes him as a “…Heavy boy with shirt tails perpetually hanging out and his hair always a mess as if he never bothered to comb it.” He is illustrated as a weak-willed individual, shy and has no reason to try anything. He says “I don’t care…there’s no point in trying anyway.” He appears as a lost cause, a boy who can not hope to live up to his brother’s standards as his brother was an extremely successful and popular student. At the start of the novel, Robert has no purpose, he finds himself isolated and it leaves him no reason in making an effort in anything.
As The Wave begins to develop. Robert was the first student to take it seriously. Mr. Ross begins The Wave by having everyone stand up straight from their desks before answering the question in a concise manner. With this, “Robert practiced the move again and again.” Showing the audience Robert’s sudden determination to appear as a strong figure. He takes a sudden development in his character as he quickly discovers The Wave as his salvation from isolation. His escape from being a nobody. The Wave was giving him a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning and as readers, we can understand that everyone seeks a purpose in their lives. Robert is even higher up in the social hierarchy as a result of the wave, proven when he receives an ‘X’ on his membership card which means he is a monitor for The Wave. He also becomes a bodyguard for Mr. Ross. Throughout the novel, Robert quickly becomes dangerously fanatic as The Wave escalates and Laurie tries to stop it. Robert clearly needs The Wave and claims that Laurie is a threat to his salvation. He says “Laurie Saunders can’t say things like that…she must be stopped.” The readers see that Robert is indoctrinated by his chronic desire to belong and it illustrates one of the main ideas of the novel. The idea that people fear isolation and will do anything to fit in and be accepted. Through Robert Billings, we can see the author’s purpose to warn us that there are very real and powerful social hierarchies that people are obsessed with being at the top of and that we must be wary of following these without question.
We see that Robert’s development take a sudden turn as he completely breaks down after The Wave is essentially abolished. At the end of the novel, Robert is alone and crying. Rhue writes that “He was the only one who stood to lose it all.” Which is perfectly true. We see that Robert devoted all of his willpower keeping The Wave alive and now that The Wave is gone, he has lost all purpose and lost his chance to become a strong and significant figure. He was equal, even if he used to be the class loser and we realize that he was blinded by the fact that he was finally considered normal and perhaps even as cool as the others. That blindness turned “[his equality] into superiority.” During the novel, Laurie’s mum said that “The problem is that [The Wave] is not real…Robert is safe as long as he keeps within the confines of The Wave. But without it, he won’t be able to function in the real world.” We understand why Robert turned so sinister and desperate to keep The Wave alive. Robert’s major loss makes the reader realize that teenagers can easily get carried away with a new idea. Robert is that teenager who got carried away in order to fill the void that caused his misery and isolation prior to The Wave’s formation.
Robert Billings was a loser and a nobody before The Wave. With The Wave, he became obsessed with keeping his place in the social hierarchy because that was all what mattered to him. Robert was unhappy with his life, he found himself isolated from his peers but The Wave turned it all around. But in all of the wrong ways. Rhue shows us that school is just a desperate competition of power and acceptance and some will go to great lengths to have that power.
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